Drishyam, or Women’s Rights in Indian Pop Culture

Manzar Samii

India and South East Asia face a problem: men use their mobile phones to film girls and women secretly, both in public and in private. Drishyam (2013) is a recent Malayalam film by Indian director Jeethu Joseph that explores the issue of secret and private footage in India, as well as its consequences, faced by an average family. Manzar Samii discusses the film and its powerful message.

The fact that Drishyam is the highest-grossing film in Malayalam cinema is no small feat. In fact, the film is exceptional not only because it topped the charts, but also because it attempts to represent a contemporary family that is faced with real issues. As opposed to romance movies with cheerful dance numbers or fast-paced action films filled with drama, Drishyam focuses on a surprising turn of events for one family in a small town in Kerala. Through its straightforward plot, notions of family values, ethics, and justice are exposed and questioned, thus leaving the viewer with a confusing message about how to judge what is right and what is wrong.
The reason for Drishyam’s popularity may be linked to the fact that the infamous Mohanlal (who generates cheering and whistling the moment he appears on screen) plays the role of Georgekutty, a strong and loving family man who is forced into a difficult set of circumstances. As the story unfolds, the audience comes to learn that Georgekutty’s teenage daughter, Anju, was filmed by a teenage boy while changing in a bathroom. This same boy later threatens her with the footage in an intense scene where it is implied that he may demand something sexual from Anju. Within this scene, Georgekutty’s wife steps up and demands that the boy delete the footage, yet he becomes violent and Anju, who is extremely distressed, strikes him over the head with a piece of wood and then smashes the phone to bits. After destroying the phone, it is discovered that the boy is actually dead, and thus the real story of how Georgekutty must save his family from this event begins.
While the remainder of the film is a nervous unfolding of how this family gets away with murder, the actual incident that sets off the unintentional murder is something noteworthy because it is extremely relevant. It pinpoints a type of anxiety faced by girls and women in India, where men are constantly using their phones to take secret photos or videos while teenage girls are having coffee with friends, women are walking down the street, or tourists are sightseeing. The question of what happens to these images or videos is brought to an extreme in Drishyam, where the boy uses the footage as blackmail; but because it is such a common occurrence, young women in the audience think, ‘that could be me’, mothers think, ‘what if that was my daughter’ and fathers think, ‘what would I do?’ In this way, the entire story is based on the idea that if it happened to this ordinary and decent family it could happen to anyone. The question then becomes, ‘what would you do if this happened to you or to your daughter?’
Even though the film is substantially dramatic, it highlights an important social issue not only in India, but also across Asia in general. Especially at a time when there is not much global emphasis on women’s right and abilities in India, this Malayalam film emerges from within the region in order to represent some of the possible troubles that exist not only for women, but also for families and the societies in which they function at a local level. Perhaps the film is so popular because it is a concern everyone can relate to, or perhaps the film has topped the charts because of the message it sends about this issue. Either way, it becomes evident that through popular culture, this film taps into a very real problem that has very real consequences for all those involved. Drishyam therefore deserves serious consideration within Kerala, among the Kairali diaspora, and across South Asia.

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